Among the sundry tasks with which my new assignment presents me is overseeing the transition to the new translation of the Roman Missal in the parishes of the Rosebud Reservation. The transition here promises to be rather smoother than in other places, at least in part because the people here do not seem to have as many ideological hang-ups as their sibling Christians in certain other locales. And many, particularly elders, already have experience praying in another language—Lakota—which gives them intuition into the reasons behind the change. As a lay cantor who participated in a workshop on the new translations explained to me a few weeks ago, “Lakota is a very spiritual language, and we understand that when we translate into English something gets lost.” The new translations are simply an attempt—imperfect, like all human endeavors—to recover a bit of what has been lost.
Among the complaints I’ve heard about the new translations from other sources is the objection that changing the Creed’s “We believe” to “I believe” diminishes the communal nature of the Mass. In some ways this is a strange objection, since the Creed’s first line is one instance in which the 1973 translation simply gets the Latin wrong, something obvious to anyone celebrating Mass in another of the major modern languages, which correctly translate “Credo” into the first person singular. Given that the 1973 English version is the outlier in this instance, there’s something self-defeating in defending a supposedly more communal word that in fact puts a distance between English speakers and the rest of the international Church.
Given the nature of the Creed as a carefully calculated statement of faith, it’s critical that its language be precise, even in little words. James V. Schall, S.J., has argued that the shift from “We” to “I” forces each one of us to take a personal stand, to make a firm affirmation of our ancient apostolic faith, something particularly important in the relativistic intellectual climate of our day, which often makes it difficult to claim belief in anything.
It is also important to remember, despite all the hullaballoo in the Catholic media, that whatever translation we use, our faith tells us that the Holy Spirit speaks to us through the liturgy. And it’s equally important to remember that the Holy Spirit is cleverer than we are, though you might not always know it from the editorialists. This is certainly why the Second Vatican Council, in no uncertain terms, declares that regulation of the liturgy depends “solely on the authority of the Church” and “therefore no other person, even if he be a priest, may add, remove, or change anything in the liturgy on his own authority” (SC, 22).
I believe that as we come to pray—instead of debate—the new texts of the liturgy, the Holy Spirit will speak in ways that even the translators of the Missal themselves could not have anticipated—which brings me back to “I” and “We” and the subtle movement between singular and plural that occurs throughout our communal prayer.
When I began praying the Liturgy of the Hours as a Jesuit novice, I noticed something interesting about the way the prayers began and the way they ended. There are two ways an Hour can begin:
Lord, open my lips.
—And my mouth will proclaim your praise.
God, come to my assistance.
—Lord, make haste to help me.
Notice that both openings are in the first person singular. The Hours are meant to be prayed in common, so it is not as though these phrases are in the singular because they’re designed for individual recitation. Indeed, when we pray the Liturgy of Hours we are praying with all the Church throughout the world (and in heaven) even if we’re the only person in the room.
The “my” and “me” in the liturgy’s opening should draw our attention to something important, something which comes into clearer focus when we see how the Liturgy of the Hours concludes. It can conclude either with a final blessing, like at Mass, or with one of the following:
May the Lord bless us,
protect us from all evil
and bring us to everlasting life.
Let us praise the Lord.
—And give him thanks.
May the all-powerful Lord grant us a restful night and a peaceful death.
You’ve probably noticed the difference: we begin in the first person singular, but we end in the plural. In other words, something changes during our prayer. In fact, I would argue that something changes because of our prayer: all those individuals calling out to God for assistance become a “We.”
And think about how such a dynamic emerges in the new translations. The Creed stands at the end of the Liturgy of the Word and the beginning of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. It begins with an individual affirmation of faith. And how does the next major prayer we all recite together begin?
The subtle shift from “I” to “Our” tells us that something important has happened in between. Somewhere in the Eucharistic Prayer, somewhere in the Paschal Mystery, a new identity emerges, a new people who dare to call God “Father” is formed out of those who dare to seek and affirm the truth.
I could draw out the implications of this shift at greater length, but perhaps it’s best to leave it for each one of us to ponder. And perhaps we might even ask ourselves, especially at those times we’re tempted to complain about our brothers and sisters in the Church:
What is it that comes between “I” and “Our”?